There’s not much in the news these days to cheer us up. Brexit is a political disaster driven by a collection of snollygosters and throttlebottoms; President Erdogan of Turkey is hellbent on causing mayhem and misery to the Kurdish and Syrian people who live on the Syrian side of the Turkey-Syria border; Chile is in flames over the rising cost of living and ever-increasing rich-poor divide; the Amazon rainforest is fast disappearing under Bolsonaro’s presidency; and nobody cares about the plight of the Palestinians anymore. But, one thing cheered me up recently – ‘Happy to Chat’ signs appearing on park benches.
A 53-year-old lady from Cardiff, Allison Owen-Jones, observed an elderly man sitting alone on a park bench for 40 minutes. During that time, she noticed that nobody stopped to say hello or chose to sit beside him. Was he lonely? Did he want to be alone? Or was he just looking for a bit of company? And then, Allison had her brilliant idea. Why not make a few ‘Happy to Chat’ placards and place them on the back of some of the park benches so that anyone in need of temporary company could elect to sit on the bench and, as it were, offer themselves up for a bit of chat?
Allison Owen-Jones’s suggested wording for ‘Happy to Chat’ benches.
The idea has gone viral. A UK senior citizen charity is liaising with local police forces to select appropriate park benches and even approve and allow chat-bench volunteers. The idea is not only spreading across the UK; organisations in Canada, United States, Switzerland, Ukraine and Australia have begun to adopt the practice, thus demonstrating the power of social media.
It truly is a remarkable concept. Since we’ve retired, my wife and I have gone regularly to a chalet in the alpine Swiss village/municipality of Gryon. Gryon is close to a major ski area, Villars-sur-Ollon, but retains much of its original village attributes, that is, it has not been overrun by large hotels and other amenities designed to attract winter sports tourists. One of the things I noticed when we first started going to Gryon was that if you walk down to the local grocery store, Marché Gryonnais, anybody you met on the walk down the road – man, woman or child – always said ‘Bonjour’. It’s a nice gesture and I’ve noticed the same in other Swiss villages and close-by French villages and towns. But, not so here in the UK unless it’s a very small community where everyone knows everyone. In my experience, it’s rare that strangers greet each other. The exceptions are if you are walking along a footpath, with or without a dog, or hiking along a long-distance path. Long-distance walkers always greet each other.
I like Allison Owen-Jones’s initiative. Lonely elderly people like to talk, to share their lifetime experiences, pass on hard-won wisdom, enquire about new social trends, and so on and, one day, I may have to take advantage of it. Let us hope, however, that the idea won’t be exploited and abused by those appearing to be friendly but with nefarious objectives. Perfidious knaves and rapscallions, keep away! Only genuine bench-chatters need apply.
This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA
Primary schools have had these ‘Buddy Benches’ or ‘Friendship Benches’ for many years and they work – they really do. They are brightly coloured and placed in the playground for any child who may be feeling lonely, unhappy, looking for a friend etc. The children are taught to look out for anyone sitting there alone and to join them for a chat and to offer friendship.
To extend this successful scheme to ‘Happy to Chat’ park benches is indeed a great idea.
Ben Bennetts said:
Well, I do declare! I never knew primary schools had the same idea. I guess I haven’t visited many primary schools recently. Thanks for the update.
I don’t need a ‘Happy Bench’ as there is always someone willing to talk on the bus even if you don’t want them to. Honestly I have met more eccentric people while travelling on the local buses (kindly supported by my bus pass) than I ever did in my career!
Ben Bennetts said:
Hmm, interesting. Maybe certain seats on buses should be designated as ‘Happy to Chat’ seats so that you can either avail or avoid depending on your mood of the day? Mind you, eccentric people may not take notice of such designations in which case my advice is wear a hoodie and plug ear buds in your ears. I used to do this, the latter that is, on long-distance flights when I was not in a mood to chat to my adjacent fellow passengers.
Allison Owen Jones said:
Thanks for this Ben! I have only just seen it. Of course, people are even more desperate for human interaction since the isolation caused by Covid 19, but it they can get out I am sure they can sit socially distanced and just pass the time of day on a Happy to Chat Bench. Here’s hoping anyway. 🙂
Ben Bennetts said:
Thanks, Allison.Your ‘Happy to Chat’ idea was, and still is, brilliant and, in these days of Covid-19 even more important for those who live on their own and who rarely venture out except, maybe, to a local park. I googled, ‘What is the length of an average park bench?’ and received the answer, ‘Anywhere from 3′ 6″ up to 5′.’ Hmm. Even the full-length five-footer will not allow the recomended 6′ social distance. Maybe those seeking a Happy to Chat experience in the park need to carry a small collapsible chair to position at one end of the bench? Either that, or we petition the local councils to provide longer park benches? What say you?
Perhaps they could put two Happy To Chat benches next to each other and see if it takes off before they invest in bigger benches. I definitely think it’s worth following up on.